Xi Jinping's Pyongyang visit may help revive denuclearisation talks

Commuters in a Pyongyang subway station, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit today to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Commuters in a Pyongyang subway station, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit today to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Korean peninsula and North Korea's denuclearisation progress are expected to figure large during Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to North Korea today, Chinese experts said.

Though Beijing has emphasised the trip is to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea and to look at ways for the close neighbours to deepen ties, the surprise visit comes less than a fortnight before Mr Xi's planned meeting with United States President Donald Trump at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

Denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea have stalled since both sides failed to reach a deal at their leaders' summit talks in Hanoi in February.

Should Mr Xi manage to help revive the talks, the good atmosphere created would also bode well for China-US talks on trade, said Dr Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University.

Chinese experts said Beijing would likely have put in place expectations for a good outcome before agreeing to the trip. Mr Xi's two-day visit to Pyongyang is notably the first by a Chinese president in 14 years. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last visited Beijing in January, just before the Hanoi summit.

Mr Xi yesterday praised Mr Kim in a rare front page op-ed in North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun for his "correct decision" to seek a political settlement to the nuclear issue and said their countries would strengthen their strategic communication and exchanges.

Mr Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said Mr Xi could propose an interim deal in which Mr Kim agrees to a complete and comprehensive freeze on his nuclear programme in exchange for limited economic sanctions relief.

"As long as (North Korea) sticks to a complete nuclear freeze, the money it may get from such economic sanctions relief won't be used to advance its nuclear development," said Mr Zhao. "This could remove a major US concern against sanctions relief."

 
 

Such a breakthrough would show China to be an indispensable partner in resolving key regional problems and persuade Washington not to take a confrontational approach towards Beijing, he added.

The analysts dismissed reports out of the US that Beijing was seeking to show the influence it has over Pyongyang or to use the denuclearisation process as leverage.

The New York Times said Mr Xi's visit "risks sidelining Mr Trump in the diplomatic undertaking that he views as one of his biggest potential legacies".

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang earlier rubbished the notion that Beijing had timed the Pyongyang trip to this end. "Anyone who sees China taking President Xi's state visit to North Korea as a bargaining chip, as leverage or any other calculations is thinking too much," he said on Tuesday.

Mr Zhao said there was no evidence that China sought to coerce the US in the trade dispute by undermining the denuclearisation process, as it is also a fundamental Chinese interest to realise a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Agreeing, Dr Cheng said North Korea's nuclear programme has become less of a priority for the US and China since their trade dispute heated up. "Clearing up trade frictions is arguably more important to Sino-US relations than the nuclear issue for now. But if trade is the main course, a good outcome on the nuclear issue can be the dessert that sweetens the mood for other discussions," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2019, with the headline 'Xi's Pyongyang visit may help revive denuclearisation talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe